Roots of Armodoxy: Angels of Geghart
Angels are all around us, if only we look. An angel is a messenger that shares God’s message of faith, hope and love with people. Several angels have had encounters with people, both in ancient times, in Biblical times, as well as today.
Vazken I, of blessed memory, the Catholicos of All Armenians from 1955 to 1994 was one such angel. During the harshest years of Soviet oppression and their hushing of the human spirit, many of the monasteries and churches in Armenia were forced to close their doors or limit their access to the people. The diplomacy of Catholicos Vazken, secured certain rights and functions of the church in the midst of targeted atheism. Some of his actions were meant to go under the Soviet radar, but for the most part, the church functioned, albeit in limited form, in full view of the government. He was a gifted and patient leader of the church who was loved by the people. Vazken I was an angel for nearly four decades passing along the faith, the hope for better days to come, and all with his compassion and example of love.
During the Soviet rule over Armenia, it was common for tourists to visit Armenian monasteries as part of the cultural landscape. In other words, the religious significance of these sacred sites was diminished by the government, by presenting them as expressions of random creativity, not necessarily inspired by the spirit. The Christian background was minimized, or even nullified, for the tourist in the official state narrative about churches and monasteries.
Geghartavank, or the monastery of Geghart, is unique because its wonder is felt only after you enter its doors. It is a monastery carved out of a mountain. Inside, different chambers are interconnected through narrow and low hallways. Geghart means “lance” or spear. In the Gospel of St. John 19:34 we read that as Jesus committed his spirit on the cross, the soldiers who were witnessing the crucifixion pierced his side with a lance to assure themselves Jesus was dead. That lance is kept by the Armenian Church to this day, and was originally kept at Geghartavank.
The monastery was a tourist stop even during Soviet times. Today, people flock there for curiosity, but more and more as a pilgrimage shrine to augment their faith.
We arrived one morning to discover a small group of a cappella singers had just concluded a mini-concert in one of the caves. Their repertoire included a few sharagans, or hymns of the Armenian Church, and a couple samplers from Gomidas Vartabed (early 20th century). We inquired when the next concert might take place and they told us it would be a bit later. Our group of nine pilgrims entered the cave at Geghartavank. We were alone. We huddled together and sang a hymn, requesting God’s mercy, “Der Voghormia.” The acoustics of the cave are such that, we, untrained vocalists, sounded amazing, so much so that the group of a cappella singers came back in as if to answering a prayer. They smiled and lined up in front of us. Taking out an electronic pitchfork, one of the singers gave the note and the others tuned into to produce the concert that was the answer to our prayer. It was renewing and invigorating, leaving us in tears, with full heart of contentment.
Life is a give and take, even with our angels. We weren’t expecting this concert, rather our prayer was one of thanksgiving. Not everything needs to be articulated. Sometimes its best to pray and know that everything falls into place. Angels bring that simple message to us as they did that day in Geghartavank.
We pray the prayer of St. Nersess Shnorhali from the 20th hour, “Benevolent Lord, commit me to a good angel, who may deliver my soul in peace, and convey it undisturbed through the cruelty of evil, to heavenly places. Amen.”